Maybe I’m trying to relive the magic because I’m going to miss Parks and Recreation really badly now that it’s over, or maybe I’m just currently between jobs, but I found myself re-watching some back episodes of the show lately.
The show’s main character, Leslie Knope, played excellently by Amy Poehler, is one if the best characters on television. She’s smart, brash, caring, choosy, confident...and the list goes on. Other people have already written about why Leslie is a better feminist figure than Liz Lemon of 30 Rock, and while I agree, I’ll let you go read about that elsewhere. (Even the “best” feminists struggle too – as Leslie says about Ron’s destructive ex-wife Tammy, the “sex-crazed demon librarian makes me question my stance on using the “B word” [5.9]).
Leslie Knope seems superhuman a lot of the time. She regularly stays up all night to bake or write rulebooks or stake out a community garden. But some of her greatest moments are when she fails. It’s when the viewer sees that all the passion in the world doesn’t always get you to where you want to be – and sometimes that passion will move you to shove an Eagletonian into a pile of garbage and get you landed in jail. Eagleton jail, though, where they serve you maple walnut scones and wrap you in a lavender afghan (3.12).
Leslie’s greatest strengths can also be flaws, but she never apologizes for being herself unless she is truly in the wrong. When Ann Perkins points out to Leslie that her passion can sometimes lead her to step on other people’s ideas and control everything, Leslie snaps back with “well you should call me a bulldozer rather than a steamroller.” And then promptly apologizes (4.8). Leslie can accomplish a lot with her enthusiasm, but we get to see the ways in which it creates friction, too. Donna Meagle perhaps best captures this dichotomy with her Twitter hashtags: #bitchboss and #bossbitch (6.4).
Parks and Recreation has a lot of sentimentality, and the show has an overall tone of positivity. From the punchy, steadfast theme song, to the brightly lit government office, to literally Chris Traeger, at times the show runs the risk of being overly optimistic to the point of nausea. April Ludgate tends to be a remedy for these moments, but her twisted sense of humor is rendered ridiculous in contrast to what is going on around her. We don’t buy into it as a glimmer of “normalcy” as we were supposed to with a character such as Jim Halpert.
No, Pawnee, Indiana is a place where people love saccharine, both in their food and otherwise. But then, it’s central sunshine-y character – to whom Ben Wyatt once exclaims, “Sometimes when we disagree, you’re so passionate I feel like I’m arguing with the sun!” – crashes and burns (6.11). It’s in Leslie’s failures that her values shine through and when we see her heartbreak she shows what really matters to her. It is also usually hilarious.
Sometimes it’s more of a slow burn. When Leslie marries two penguins in the name of cute at the Pawnee Zoo, a zookeeper reveals that the penguins are both males and Leslie finds herself embroiled in a government scandal (2.1). The buttoned-up Marcia Langman, of the Society for Family Stability Foundation, requests that Leslie resign after symbolically taking the stance “in favor of the gay agenda.” But Leslie is reigned in by the gay community’s celebration of her, and her mistake becomes something she fights for vehemently on “Pawnee Today” with Joan Calamezzo. Leslie cares about her job, and she cares about people. This one works out for ol’ Leslie Knope, when she transfers the penguins to a zoo in Iowa, where gay marriage is legal.
One of the pivotal crash moments is also one of the most hilarious. Leslie’s well-intentioned but clueless friends have prepared a local sports arena for her first rally in her run for city council, her childhood dream becoming realized (4.11).
April booked the arena post-hockey game, Tom Haverford didn’t buy enough red carpet, and thus comes the perfect pairing of Gloria Estefan’s “Get on Your Feet” while the group toddles on ice to the miniature stage for which Ron Swanson didn’t have enough materials to finish building. But Leslie still gets a win (on a recount), and she remains steadfast in her convictions even when failing spectacularly.
Leslie goes after what she wants even when she knows it could lead to failure. Even though her ideal man has “the brains of George Clooney in the body of Joe Biden” (2.13), when she realizes she cannot stay away from the real man she loves, she goes on trial and gets suspended from her job (4.9). She soon gets caught breaking into the parks and recreation office to get files so she can try to work from home.
Sometimes, though, Leslie doesn’t bounce back so quickly. Her dream is to become President of the United States, and any steppingstone to get there carries high stakes. So when her city council campaign managers drop her, she feels like she won’t be able to bounce back. She goes on a bender when the town she loves later turns against her and votes her out of the city council position she worked so hard to win. In spite of her generally unflinching optimism, she is not invulnerable to the pain of defeat, just like the rest of us.
Parks and Recreation’s success stemmed from the writers knowing their characters well, and pushing them to extremes – often, extreme failures. Failure is funny: Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry Gergich, anyone? Failure is relatable, more so than the show’s perfect marriages, neatly bound character types, or dream jobs. Failure makes us test our limits, feel those low-lows, and realize what (and who) we really care about (should this sentence be printed on a poster in a flowery font? I’m guessing it’s already someone’s Facebook cover photo). You could place “super” in front of a lot of descriptors about Leslie Knope, and “failure” is on that list. I think she would be okay with that.
Bonus clip: one of Ben Wyatt’s brilliant failures, his claymation masterpiece (also from episode 4.11)